Korean TV to spotlight Vietnam's bear bile bugbear

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Conservationists hope that a KBS undercover story will raise public ire against bear farming at home and abroad

A bear at a farm in the northern province of Quang Ninh waits to have its bile extracted. An expose on the bear bile trade in Vietnam is set to be featured by the Korean Broadcast System on Friday, October 15, conservation groups have confirmed.

Vietnam's unchecked bear bile industry will be featured by a major South Korean TV network this week, conservation groups have confirmed.

The Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the largest of four television networks in South Korea, will air an undercover exposé filmed at a bear farm in Vietnam this Friday (October 15), according to Chris Gee, Wildlife Programs Manager of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). KBS has been in touch with WSPA to investigate bear farming in South Korea, where the practice remains legal, Gee added.

Bear farming for the purposes of bile extraction is illegal in Vietnam. However, conservation groups have long been alarmed by the flow of wealthy Korean tourists and bear farm entrepreneurs into the Southeast Asian nation. They remain hopeful that the airing of this exposé may draw attention to the problem inside South Korea for the first time.

"The show will be aired at 10 p.m. on KBS 1TV. The name of the program is "˜Consumer Accusation," said Kelly Frances McKenna, founder of Bear Necessity Korea, a South Korea-based group campaigning for the rights of Asiatic Black Bears.

"It will be available online and will provide information about the black marketing situation and tours which are organized from Seoul and occur in Vietnam," McKenna said.

Vietnam's Quang Ninh Province, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay, has earned notoriety for its bear bile trade. During the grizzly extraction processes, the bears are drugged, usually with the illegal drug ketamine, removed from their small cages, restrained with ropes and jabbed in the abdomen with four-inch needles until the gall bladder is located. Bile is extracted with a catheter and pump. Usually, between 100- 120ml is withdrawn at a time and sold for between $3 and $6 per milliliter.

Vietnam made bear bile extraction illegal nearly two decades ago, but farmers who already had captive bears were allowed to maintain them as tourist attractions. Thanks to this legal loophole, some bear farms continue to extract bile and sell it to mainly Chinese and Korean visitors who believe it is, among other things, a cure for liver and heart ailments, an aphrodisiac, and a desirable additive in shampoo, toothpaste and soft drinks.

The bilateral problem of bear farming prompted Vietnamese lawmaker Nguyen Dinh Xuan to urge South Korea to pursue a solution last year.

In his letter, sent to the Korean Environment Ministry, Xuan urged the government to instruct the Korean public to refrain from engaging in these illegal acts when they travel to Vietnam.

Even worse, Xuan said, is that the farms sell the bear bile to Korean tourists, who take the product back to South Korea, unwittingly violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The international convention, observed both by South Korea and Vietnam, forbids the cross-border trade of endangered or vulnerable animals.

Stepping stone

McKenna of Bear Necessity Korea said that, until recently, it has been very difficult to get Korean-language coverage of the bear bile trade.

"We found the Korean media to be unreceptive to the issue," she said. "It seemed to me that the issue of bear bile farming "˜was simply not big news' in [South] Korea: it is not headline-worthy, lacks "˜sex appeal', and it isn't exciting enough to brandish [on] our front pages."

McKenna said she was pleased to see an increase in media exposure.

At the moment, South Korea is one of a few countries in the world where bear bile farming remains legal. Experts estimate that there are some 1,200 bears currently being farmed in the prosperous peninsula.

But all of that could change.

Last month, the South Korean National Assembly, the national legislative body, began the process that could result in the phase out of the bear farming industry in the country.

The bill is expected to be considered by the Environment and Labor Committee as well as other relevant ministries, WSPA said in a press release posted on its website. If the measure gains popular support, this process could outlaw bear farming in South Korea before the end of the year.

"˜Very different situations'

Conservationists in Vietnam welcomed the latest move taken by the South Korean government. However, Vietnam, home to an estimated 4,000 farmed bears, faces an entirely different challenge.

"Vietnam's laws are already in place," said Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) - the country's first NGO to focus on conservation. "It is two very different situations, Korea and Vietnam, so it is important to work together, particularly on the issue of Korean tourists coming to Vietnam and being encouraged to violate the law [by buying bear bile]."

After outlawing bear farming in 1992, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development again committed to ending the practice in 2006. The amended Biodiversity Law, passed in July 2009, also expressly prohibits the commercial farming of protected species.

"In my opinion the issue in Vietnam is not about phasing out bear farming but one of lack or non-enforcement of the law," said Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam director of Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based conservation group which seeks to eliminate cruelty to animals.

In October 2009, Quang Ninh Province environmental police raided Viet Thai, one of the six known bear bile farms in the province, and caught nine people, including two South Koreans, engaged in the extraction of bear bile.

Since then, undercover investigations carried out by conservation groups have discovered that bear farms in Quang Ninh, including Viet Thai, continue to extract bear bile and sell it to foreign tourists.

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